Health concerns raised over proposed pesticide

Marilyn Lynds talks about problems she has experienced from a farm across the street from her Portrero Road home in Moss Landing. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula)

Marilyn Lynds talks about problems she has experienced from a farm across the street from her Portrero Road home in Moss Landing. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula)

June 12, 2010


While most local residents plan family vacations each spring, Marilyn Lynds makes plans to avoid drift from fumigation.

Lynds has lived on the edge of a strawberry field in Moss Landing for about 15 years. When the grower makes plans to fumigate, she has two days to find a temporary place to live for her husband and teenage daughter. The grower typically fumigates in three‐day rotations to prep the land for that year’s strawberry crop.

“It doesn’t just happen over a few days,” Lynds said. “It’s usually over the course of three months.”

For those months, Lynds said she and her family are in and out of their home and stay with friends in the area. Soon residents like Lynds and other local strawberry farmworkers will have to wrangle with a new fumigant methyl iodide. Against the concerns of some scientists and environmental groups, the Department of Pesticide Regulation plans to replace methyl bromide, a fumigant that was found to deplete the ozone layer, with methyl iodide to meet international environmental treaty standards.

DPR and local growers say the rigorous regulations on the chemical make the fumigant safe to use. But farmworker advocates and environmental groups say saving the ozone layer might risk the health of farmworkers and bystanders if methyl iodide is released into local strawberry fields. Some scientists say the chemical is so toxic they only use it in very small amounts with the utmost caution to induce cancer cells in test rats at research labs.

Lab tests with rats have shown that methyl iodide causes thyroid cancer, miscarriage and damage to the reproductive system. Although the effects on humans are less developed, case studies of people exposed to the chemical show it can damage the central nerve system , according to the DPR. This puts residents like Lynds who suffers from post‐polio syndrome, a condition that weakens the muscular system in people who have previously suffered from polio, a virus that can affect the central nervous system at an increased risk.

The issue has become especially heated in California because of the breadth of its lucrative agricultural industry and its legacy of intense fumigation. In Watsonville, the industry is no different. According to the 2008 Santa Cruz County agricultural commissioner’s crop report, there are about 3,287 acres of strawberry fields in Santa Cruz County valued at $160,378,000 in gross income. About 19 percent of Watsonville workers help operate the industry. “The strawberry and berry industry provides a majority of jobs in the area,” Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau president John Eiskamp said. “The valley is based on the agricultural industry . It brings a lot of money to the valley. It brings a lot of income into the valley.”

The new pesticide known in the commercial market as Midas was approved by the Bush administration as a fumigant despite the concerns of environmental groups, farmworkers and 54 distinct scientists , five of whom are Nobel laureates in chemistry.

Recently, 33 assemblymen and state senators have come out against methyl iodide, saying it is too dangerous for California’s fields. Bill Monning, 27th District Assemblyman, is one of the state’s stronger critics of the pesticide.

“It appears that commercial enterprise has outweighed public health interests in this case,” Monning stated in a recent press release. “I hope that (DPR) will reconsider its decision.”

The state is putting additional barriers on the application of the pesticide. Under the new rules, it can be used a half‐mile away from occupied schools, hospitals and prisons. DPR also increased the exposure levels from Environmental Protection Agency standards for bystanders by 118 parts per billion over a 24‐hour period, and 97 parts per billion for workers over an eight‐hour period. But the state levels are still more than 120 times higher than DPR scientists’ suggestion of 0.8 parts per billion for workers over an eight‐hour period.

Farmworker advocates and environmental groups are doubtful that even with the stricter regulations, methyl iodide is safe to use in California’s strawberry fields. Aside from the health effects from direct and chronic exposure, it can result in toxic levels of iodine in groundwater.

“(Iodine) is a nutrient as a tiny amount, but it can become toxic to the thyroid gland in large quantities,” said Anne Katten, an industrial hygienist and worker safety specialist with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a farmworker advocacy organization.

Even with the most careful application, there are always accidents, she said.
“Historically things have gone wrong in fumigation,” Katten said. “The weather can change, there can be equipment malfunction , errors in how things are applied , and tarps can rip.”

In its most recent report, published in 2007, DPR found that 300 of 318 pesticide incidents involved agricultural fumigants . Locally, there are at least two cases against the DPR in which a farmworker suffered from pesticide exposure.

Still, Watsonville strawberry growers feel confident that the added regulations and limitations will make the fumigant safe to use, even if they would just as soon keep using methyl “No one is trying to make anyone sick,” said David Kegebein , an independent strawberry grower contracted with Driscoll’s Berries, one of Watsonville’s largest berry production companies.

Kegebein has lived in a home surrounded by berry fields for years and doesn’t feel it is unsafe. His concern is keeping up the pace of production to meet consumer demands. With a broader range of materials to sterilize the soil, growers like Kegebein can produce berries at a faster rate.

The lack of good‐quality land available in places with favorable climates, such as Watsonville , makes it difficult to produce strawberries at a sufficient pace, Kegebein said. Fumigants help growers like Kegebein produce crops at a faster rate, employ more workers and “The bottom line is, if we’re going to produce food and feed people, we’ve got to have materials to get the job done,” Kegebein said.

Farmworker advocates say higher production isn’t worth risking the health of workers and residents.

“We can’t keep looking for replacement chemicals,” said Paul Towers, California state director of Pesticide Watch. “We have to look for healthy, sustainable farming systems.”
Environmental Protection Agency pesticide scientists may re‐evaluate methyl iodide for general use, depending on the outcome of the external review and risk assessment. The public has until June 29 to comment on the proposed use of methyl iodide . If the chemical is approved for use, it will begin to be used in California fields in the fall.

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